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Notre Dame a reluctant Goliath against Navy

Irish are aware of pitfalls of maintaining NCAA-record 40-game win streak
Quarterback Brady Quinn and Notre Dame know that undefeated Navy will be eager to beat the Fighting Irish on Saturday.Joe Raymond / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

This comes from Justin Tuck, defensive end for Notre Dame, home to "Touchdown Jesus," seven Heisman Trophy winners and seven national championships: "I hate playing Navy."

In four words, Tuck summed up the theme for this afternoon's game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Notre Dame has beaten the Midshipmen 40 straight times. Notre Dame is favored by 6 1/2 points today. Notre Dame is a traditional national power, and Navy is a service academy that, by some measures, should be happy merely to stay afloat in high-stakes college football.

But the Fighting Irish hate playing Navy for a reason, and it has shown up the past two meetings. The Midshipmen, who have led the last two games in the fourth quarter, are getting closer. They don't dread the annual matchup with Notre Dame. Rather, they relish it.

"All I can think about this week," Navy senior linebacker Lane Jackson said, "is I'm not going to blow this opportunity."

So it is that this game is an opportunity for Navy, which, at 5-0, enters the matchup unbeaten for the first time since 1978. It is a contest full of peril for Notre Dame (4-2), which -- with upcoming games at Tennessee and top-ranked Southern California -- badly needs a victory, regardless of the opponent, to sustain its hopes of rebounding from a 5-7 season a year ago and returning to a bowl.

The 40-year streak, both sides said this week, means very little to the kids on these two squads. But for most of the participants, there is plenty of resonance in the games from 2002 and 2003 -- when Navy had leads of 23-15 and 24-21, respectively, in the fourth quarter, only to lose both times. One measure of how the Midshipmen see this game, though, is that there is very little reveling in the 30-23 and 27-24 losses the past two years.

"When we talk about it," fullback Kyle Eckel said, "we talk about it with half-smiles on our faces. It just gives us more to play for."

There is only one thing, the Navy players said, that will make those smiles extend from cheek to cheek. Three years ago, Navy was 0-10. Beating anyone, let alone Notre Dame, seemed out of the question. Now, with Paul Johnson, the third-year coach, turning things around -- it was Navy, not Notre Dame, that played in a bowl game last season -- the attitude for this game is different. "Winning changes things," Johnson said.

"Close doesn't mean anything," he continued. "My two years here, they made plays and we didn't. They turned it up when it came to prime time, and we couldn't go up that notch with them."

In order to go up that notch with the Irish today, Navy's defense will have to contain sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn, who passed for 432 yards in a loss to Purdue and hasn't thrown an interception in Notre Dame's past two games, and who Johnson said is "not even close -- he's just way better" than what he was as a freshman a year ago. Quinn is aided by freshman running back Darius Walker.

If, in fact, the Midshipmen can slow down the Irish and hold onto the football on offense, they very well could find themselves in a situation similar to those of the past two years. The Navy players spoke this week of how they can't play well for just 3 1/2 quarters, that they must play nearly flawlessly for an entire game. Even then, there are other factors.

"The confidence builds because of what we did in those games, but so does the nervousness," Jackson said. "When you're leading in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame, you get nervous as hell. But there is confidence that we get from it. It makes us realize that if we only play to our capability, we're not too far below anybody's ability."

Johnson has Navy believing that. The Midshipmen, using Johnson's intricate triple-option offense, average 267.4 yards rushing, sixth-best in the nation. That includes nearly 93 yards a game from quarterback Aaron Polanco, who throws the ball fewer than 10 times per game. It is that style that served Johnson so well during his time at Division I-AA Georgia Southern, where he won two national titles. It is also a style that drives the Irish crazy.

"It's not because of the fact that they don't throw the ball," Tuck said, continuing his "Why I hate playing Navy" theme. "It's just the fact that their style of play is going to make it a defensive game. After this football game, there is going to be a lot of people banged-up and bruised."

But for one of the few times in this rivalry, who will be more banged-up and bruised afterward is a legitimate question. Will it be Notre Dame, so full of history? Or will it be Navy, making history?

"We still haven't played our best game yet," Jackson said. "We're going to need to in order to beat Notre Dame. But it's definitely within our reach. That's what we've worked for."